Despite what Yeezy’s myopic futurism would have you think, dusty traditions like punctual releases and singles promotion still matter in the streaming age- ask Cardi. Teyana Taylor wasn’t too impressed about her sophomore album’s tardy rollout either, and she’s got a point about labels undervaluing her distinct abilities. But like the martyred MC she salutes on the beautiful ‘Rose in Harlem’, she’s too tough, passionate, and determined to take it lying down. K.T.S.E. is the clearest airing of her talent yet, a silky soul triumph that survives outbreaks of good taste to make square monogamy sound like a ticket to the greatest sex you’ll ever have. If only Kanye wasn’t involved.
That’s not to say he’s entirely useless. Taylor’s career has zig and zagged over the years; she choreographed a Beyoncé music video, released a series of whip-smart mixtapes, and won her features on West’s Twisted Dark Fantasy by slyly humming along to the temp tracks he showed her. In short, a focused artist. What her 2014 debut VII lacked was a distinctive sound, and here Ye delivers, layering sharp Delfonics samples over burnished string and acoustic guitars. It’s a soothing, if somewhat PC backdrop for Taylor’s contemporary stories of liberated sexuality and marital anxiety.
Her persona, for one, is unique in contemporary chart-topping RnB; a happily wed young mother who could give less of a fuck about meeting the expectations that role entails. ‘No Manners’ sees Taylor rap-singing ‘I have a husband, but I’ve got no manners’, a crisp pop hook that summarises the Harlem singer’s refusal to fit into a record executive’s box. On the confident ‘3Way’, she runs us through the night’s plans over airy male backing vocals, briefly ceding control so Ty Dolla $ign can croon a smooth verse about keeping freaky secrets. She wears the ring, but she isn’t bound- marriage has simply given her a reliable, affectionate partner to experiment with.
‘Rose in Harlem’ is pure Late Registration, a gorgeous melding of baroque brass arrangement and shuffling trap snares. Although she borrows lyrical ideas from 2Pac and Ben E King, Teyana’s nimble no-bullshit flow recalls NYC legends like MC Lyte, addressing her haters while refusing them any ‘free promotion’. On the other hand, conscious ballad ‘Issues/ Hold On’ features some of her most vulnerable lyrics yet. She credits her husband’s restless eye to a culture that promotes masculine insecurity, while explaining her own personal struggles with self-worth. It’s a great piece of memorable, empathetic songwriting: ‘You gon’ have to lend a shoulder, help me kill this hangover’ is such a wickedly blunt line about the prosaic realities of long-term relationships that you wish Taylor had space to elaborate further.
And that’s when the problems start. Def Jam wants you to know this record belongs to the Wyoming Sessions, a quintet of short records, all produced by West, sporadically released over five weeks. K.T.S.E. is a track longer than the other Wyoming records, running at eight songs. It’s not enough. Pusha-T’s DAYTONA succeeded because the skeletal EP format encouraged him to refine a voice that had matured over a long career. Taylor, meanwhile, is best known for transforming into a cat-person in the 80s softcore visual for West’s 2016 single ‘Fade’. An expanded tracklisting would have allowed her to showcase her entire range. Instead, K.T.S.E. feels like an incomplete snapshot of a woman who is still in the process of finding her voice.
Occasionally, that voice falls to a more conventional register; ‘Never Would Have Made It’ is as safe as a primetime talent show bit. But you can imagine Taylor producing a modern soul album in the future. Ms. Hill was no prude, but she never relished the ins and outs quite like Taylor does on closer ‘Want This Pussy’, a loopy ode to the Harlem Ballroom scene so risqué that the label printed the title as an acronym. Just listen to it; rapper Mykki Blanco plays compere, mad hyping a seething Teyana as a ‘muthafucking international sensation’ over synthetic drums whose bounce owes more to Larry Hearder’s ‘Can You Feel It” than Spirit in the Dark.
Maybe it’s a case of Teyana uncoupling from West’s party and setting herself up at an outfit who can manage to release an album on time. But you expect they inspire each other. K.T.S.E. still topped the RnB charts, after all, and the music is the most coherent that the producer has released in years. And yet, I feel like a different management would have lifted Taylor higher, to the heights she’s always deserved but never quite reached. Give it another two years. Then escape to TDE and take what you earnt.